Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Constructionism -v- instructionism

Should you teach a student how to do something or let them explore and find out for themselves?  Here is the problem of instruction -v- construction.  What do we actually know about how students learn? This is what the research tells us:
Children given a toy and shown how to use it will "learn" how the toy works, but will not explore beyond what they are shown.  This is true even if they simply overhear instructions being given to a child in the same room.  Children not given instruction will explore the same toy with a wider range of investigations and will find things that the first groups of children do not find.  (Bonawitz et al, 2011, quoted in Invent to Learn)
Here is another definition:   Constructivism is a theory of learning that is child-centred, open-ended, project-based and inquiry based.  Learning is social and the learner is the centre of attention. Learning results from experience and is constructed inside the head of the student.  Instructionism is explicitly teaching facts or showing students how to solve problems and then having the students practice them. Instructionists believe that learning is the direct result of having been taught.

Thanks to Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez for giving me a lot to think about today.  What sort of teacher am I?  I think I do a bit of both.  Sometimes I do show students how something works - for example recently I've shown our 5th Graders how to use Sketch Up.  I tried to do this in a sort of minimalistic way by showing them the different tools and then asking them to play and explore by themselves, but for sure there were some students who wanted to know how to make a dome on the top of their structure, for example, and we did watch a tutorial on that together (and then I later showed some other students how to do this).  On the other hand I've also taken a very hands-off approach in other situations, for example in introducing 3rd Graders to Google Earth, where I have simply asked them to go and explore and then share what they discovered with the rest of the class.

What do you think?  Which type of teacher are you?

Photo Credit: H is for Home via Compfight cc


  1. Totally a constructivist teacher here. It's one of the reasons that I love the AVID ( program. It's a lot of inquiry based learning. I start asking them questions. Eventually, I can set up an activity and they start asking questions and take ownership in the learning.

    The sad part is that my PLC is totally instructivist. It's teaching to the test, how to be successful on the test, and strategies that are relevant to the test. It's saddening.

    I think the coolest part is when you set up a constructivist activity as a supposed expert but then the students end up teaching you! How much fun is that?????

  2. Hi Maggie,

    This is a timely post for me, as I've been thinking a lot over the last few years about what the appropriate balance between instructionist and constructivist learning should be. I think you're right, that it's not ideal to be totally one or the other, and I suspect that the balance needs to be pushed way over in the direction of constructivism, since it's the side of teaching/learning that has been neglected and out of balance in too many classrooms for far too long.

    But I'm not convinced that an education that is 100% constructivist is necessarily an ideal arrangement either. As much as I think there is some truth to the quote by Bonawitz, I strongly suspect that unless a teacher with insight and knowledge takes students deeper into an idea or topic, there will be many things that remain undiscovered, or at least will take far too long to discover in a purely constructivist discovery mode. As another teacher once said to me, "that bottom year 9 class is not going to teach themselves algebra".

    I've seen kids set loose to learn on their own and they can do awesome and amazing things. I've also seen them set loose to end up wasting massive amounts of time and failing to learn the things I feel they really ought to have learnt, or not learnt them in enough depth, or worse, learning them with significant misunderstandings. If a teacher can guide students along a learning path, knowing when to push them forward and knowing when to let them fall forward on their own.

    Too often I hear people talking about student centredness as a form of abdicating the responsibility for actually teaching. It's almost like the act of teaching in any sort of instructivist way is somehow dirty and to be avoided at all costs. I think that's a mistake.

    I suspect that the balance between the instructivist vs constructivist modes depend on the age of the student, the type of content or activity being learned, the complexity of the ideas under discussion, the subject area, and a bunch of other variables. Sometimes one is more appropriate than the other. The real educator knows how to strike that balance, for each student in their care.

    How hard could it be? :-)

    PS: I'll be in Mumbai in a couple of weeks for the Google Summit held at your school... I hope we get to meet in person.

    1. Hi Chris,
      I heard you were coming and I'm looking forward to meeting you too (actually I did meet you at ISTE last year I think). I certainly don't advocate letting the students go off and learn whatever they want, but I do think the teacher's role is more to guide the inquiries, to listen hard and find out what the students know and what they want to know, to provide learning engagements and provocations that will make them think and question more, to offer different perspectives that students may want to explore, to provide the resources and time, and also to give some direct instruction when appropriate to do so (for example if the students are going off on a tangent or completely missing the point).

      One of my worst experiences as a teacher was seeing a group of students come into the IT room at my last school to research the question "who invented the volcano?" This was ridiculous - the teacher certainly failed those students and allowed them to follow a meaningless path, when a simple explanation, or finding a model or simulation of how a volcano erupts, would have put them straight. This was setting kids up for failure and was an example of poor teaching.

      I often think that teachers in constructivist classrooms actually have to work much harder and more thoughtfully than those in instructionist ones. However you are right - it is all a question of balance.

    2. Thanks Maggie, I think you're spot on. The focus needs to be not on eradicated the idea of teaching per se, but on eradicating bad teaching specifically.

      I wrote this post a while back that I think started to explore how I think about this balance.

      See you in Mumbai!